Sunday 1 May 2011

The day I met Elizabeth (G.E.M) Anscombe


Reading biographies and memoirs - as I do - I am often struck by the vivid, detailed recall of those who met eminent people - and contrast it with my own hazy recollections of meeting the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe - -

who was, if not exactly eminent, someone that appears as a minor but significant figure in the annals of the twentieth century in relation both to Wittgenstein and to C.S. Lewis. Lewis, for example, regarded her as much more intelligent than he was.


The meeting was, I am pretty sure, in the summer or autumn of 1985, and comes from a rather lost episode of my young adult life (lost, because it did not lead on to anything), while I was working on my doctorate in neuroendocrinology.  I have no written evidence from this period, and I didn't discuss my plans very widely, so I am forced to operate purely on the basis of memory.

I was, at the time, much under the spell of Wittgenstein, and (therefore?) wanting to study philosophy as an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge on an accelerated (2 year instead of 3 year) degree - possible because I was already a (medical) graduate.

I must have written to some people, and arranged some meetings and then I travelled to Cambridge where I had lunch with Anscombe at her college New Hall, then in the afternoon met with the admissions tutor of Trinity and their philosophy tutor (Nick Denyer).

So I was probably with Anscombe for an hour and a half or so. What do I recall?


Of the lady, that she struck me a very much the same type as the minor country gentry I had encountered in Somerset and Northumberland; a chunky, pugnacious and somewhat 'masculine' elderly woman (of course, masculine or not, she had had numerous children). Her speech was clipped and 'military' in style, the content I remember as cliched and at a superficial social level.

Her car was very muddy and full of bits and pieces.

The lunch at New Hall, and the college itself, I can picture as being similar to, but somewhat better than, a secondary school dinner - there was some kind of gimmick by which the lunch counter rose up out of the floor (electrically powered) to bring up food from the kitchens below, I imagine. In general I felt rather underwhelmed, disappointed.

The only remark I can recollect was in response to a query about her meeting with Wittgenstein - she said something about having heard about him while she was studying in Oxford, then concluding this to comment that 'of course, he had a first-rate mind'. This struck me at the time as a characteristic bit of Cambridge boilerplate.


So, in my memory at least, I have to admit that I was not impressed by G.E.M Anscombe, indeed I rather disliked her - yet of course she was both generous and tolerant to meet up with me, give me lunch, and talk with me - I who was someone merely considering applying to Trinity, and with no connection with her or with the university. I hope that I was suitably grateful.

(And I very much doubt whether G.E.M Anscombe was at all impressed with me! I can't recall saying anything which, even momentarily, captured her attention or interest. Quite likely, this was a basis of my slight feeling of resentment - that I did not, could not, impress her? Maybe I was hoping to be recognized as 'the next Wittgenstein'? - that unlikely notion would indeed be entirely consistent with my self-conceit of that era.)


The episode led nowhere because, although I was indeed offered a place at Trinity to read philosophy, when I saw the size of the college fees (on top of the university fees and the need to support myself for two years of very hard academic work) it was very obvious that I could not afford it.

But also, the visit had rather put me off the idea of studying undergraduate philosophy at Trinity, Cambridge; as I recall I was glad of a cast-iron excuse not to follow-through my plans.

In the event, I went to Durham to study for an MA by thesis in English (only one year, and with a British Academy scholarship - so easily affordable) - and this turned out to be a much more fruitful path for me.


(Although Durham English did not cure me of Wittgenstien - in fact things got even worse as I continued reading philosophy alongside the English, and moved on to Richard Rorty and deep into the lunacy of 'postmodern' thinking, which I had successfully resisted up to that point. It took a few more years to extricate myself from that mess.)


The Cambridge affair now feels like a near miss or lucky escape - a madness of a few weeks - on those rare occasions I remember it; and maybe that interpretation colours or extinguishes my memories.

But what a feeble set of recollections I have concerning this meeting!

For some people, such a meeting might have provided sufficient incident to fill a 15 000 word memoir!



RS said...

They say she was very important in the (academic of course, not cultural) revival of virtue ethics / eudaemonism. Quite a key concept in rightism.

Bruce Charlton said...

So I gather - unfortunately I just can't get myself to read her stuff.

Daniel said...

My final year as an undergraduate in a public university English program in the US, I was singled out by our top (most famous) post-modern professor as something of a protege. He wanted to steer me to a top graduate program in post-whatever "studies".

Thankfully, I had dreadful grades and a horrible work ethic. My quick wits and sheer loquacity — and my enthusiastic embrace of deconstructionism — made me seem like a much better student that I really was.

At the time I became truly angry with myself for the lost opportunity and vowed to work much harder in life (with mixed results). Now, I look back on it as the luckiest thing. I was able to escape that cesspit of nothingness and lies before too much of my self-identity had become hopelessly entangled with it.

Your story reminds me of this hidden blessing in my own life.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Daniel - indeed. Good fortune works, or at least has worked for me, more by avoiding or extricating me from what seemed like - but was not - good luck, than from gifting me me good opportunities (although I have had them too - for example the bequested - and well paid - editorship of Medical Hypotheses for 7 years with a completely free rein to choose the journal content).